Tamara is “essential.”
Even though she has no medical training, no experience in law enforcement and has never driven an ambulance or extinguished a fire, Tamara is still technically an “emergency responder.”
She risks her life every day to work as a case manager for the state of Alabama’s Department of Human Resources, even after a coworker tested positive for COVID-19. Tamara (whose real name is being withheld to protect her employment) doesn’t want to risk her life to fill out paperwork but unfortunately, Tamara’s boss, Gov. Kay Ivey, has mostly disregarded the coronavirus scare, only issuing a kinda stay-at-home order for Alabama that overrides local orders while excluding “essential” businesses like gun stores, churches...
And Tamara’s job.
Tamara’s department managers, who hold zero medical degrees, advised everyone that they had no reason to quarantine, even after one of their clients came into the office and self-reported a positive COVID-19 test result in March. Then another one of the department’s new hires tested positive. Then the program managers discovered an employee was so sick that they had been secretly “throwing up in trash cans,” causing the managers to circulate an officewide email notifying the entire staff that vomiting at work was a “violation of the Work Rules for the department,” and threatening to take “appropriate action” if the culprit was discovered.
This was Tuesday.
Although Tamara still can’t figure out why she is so essential, neither can her supervisors. According to inter-office communication reviewed by The Root, on March 31, Jefferson County DHR director Francie Fenderson admitted that she had received “numerous emails” from confused employees but was still waiting for answers from her superiors. A week later, an email (pdf) from the Alabama Department of Human Resources explained that Tamara and her coworkers were officially exempt from the Families First Coronavirus Protection Act, which protects workers from the deadly virus.
“All employees of the Alabama Department of Human Resources (Department) are ‘emergency responders and therefore exempt from FFCRA,’” read the memo from Alabama’s Secretary of Labor and the State Health Officer. The Human Resources Department staff members were stunned by the “you-better-bring-yo-ass-to-work” order…
“We are certain that we have been exposed to COVID-19 but are still being required to come into work or take accrued leave,” Tamara told The Root. “Many of our job functions have been halted for the foreseeable future and no effort seems to be made to expedite a plan for the remaining departments to work from home and eliminate health risks for workers who are a part of vulnerable populations...When will the governor, commissioner, and directors consider this crisis serious to quarantine all staff and allow us to work from home? We’re told we’re essential staff, but aren’t our lives, safety and health valuable, as well?”
No, Tamara. You are “essential.”
But not really.
Joyce is not essential.
Before Gov. Ivey finally issued the stay-at-home order that still allowed Alabamians to go to parks, churches and gun stores, Joyce had already lost her job on her day off.
Well, technically, Joyce had taken a sick day for her annual physical when her employer, the retail giant Hobby Lobby, closed all the stores and sent an email furloughing all employees without pay. As she left her medical appointment, Joyce (who asked that we not use her real name while she searches for work) realized she was now unemployed in a cratering economy with no healthcare. The only bright spot was that the doctor at the University of Alabama Medical Center had given her a complete medical exam during her appointment, including, for some reason a test for coronavirus.
A week later, Joyce heard the news that Ivey had reluctantly issued the toothless directive. In her attempt to prepare, Joyce went grocery shopping, filled out a few job applications and stopped by the UAB satellite location to follow up on a message about her exam results. She was tired from running around but she wanted to find out what the doctors had to say before the city was locked down.
“As soon as I got there, they took me into a private room and I was like: ‘Oooh, I don’t even have to wait like you usually do at the doctor’s office,’” Joyce explained during a phone interview. “They told me I had high blood pressure and I needed blood pressure medicine. Everybody in my family has high blood pressure. It was no big whoop.”
Because she didn’t have insurance, the nurse informed Joyce that she’d have to go to a separate clinic (in the same UAB Medical network) if she wanted the prescription medication for free. Even though the two clinics were part of the same hospital network, Joyce didn’t argue. Then, the nurse shared some shocking medical news with Joyce.
Joyce had COVID-19.
“I felt like somebody punched me in the chest,” Joyce told The Root. “I don’t know if it was from the news or because I was sick. I was coughing so hard I couldn’t catch my breath. But they still didn’t offer me a mask or any protection.”
By the time Joyce darted across town to Cooper Green Mercy Hospital for her medical appointment, she was coughing incessantly. Maybe it was all in her head but she really needed to get that free medicine before everything closed. Plus, Joyce figured they might be able to give her something for her chest pains and worsening cough.
Minutes after Joyce walked in, the staff at Cooper Green immediately realized that she should be in the hospital. Before admitting her, a staffer told Joyce she’d need to arrange for someone to move her car from the parking garage before she was admitted. When Joyce responded that she didn’t drive, the hospital employee remembered Joyce, saying that she was tired from riding around town all day.
“You’ve been in a car with someone coughing on them all day?” The staffer asked, incredulously. “Go tell your ride that they need to get checked for coronavirus. Do it right now.”
“I don’t have a ride,” Joyce replied.
“I rode the bus.”
Simply reporting that COVID-19 is killing black people is not enough.
As the media reports higher coronavirus infection and death rates for black America, it is also important for outlets to be as diligent in reporting why black people are disproportionately affected by this exponentially multiplying global pandemic.
We figured it out.
The slurry mix of economics, medical bias and institutional inequality that creates and perpetuates health disparities make black Americans prime targets for health disparities. If you are black, inequality is inescapable. It waits for you at the bus stop. It follows you across town. It emails you at work. It lingers in the air.
The data on COVID-19 shows that the disproportionate infection rates can’t be defined by poverty, behavior or geography alone. In fact, when we factor in income and demographics, we can only reach one conclusion:
White supremacy, like the coronavirus, is everywhere.
Tamara’s story is not a tale of woe. She doesn’t live in poverty. She is educated, has a job, a home and she has health insurance. Still, Tamara is one of the millions of black working-class people who don’t have the option of avoiding the murderous disease. It is not unusual for a black person to sacrifice their mental and physical health for the sake of equality and economic stability. Inequality is the operating system on which America runs and, oftentimes, none of it has anything to do with hate or intent. It just is.
For more than 50 years, the black unemployment rate has hovered at twice the rate of white unemployment, which is one reason why black employees are overrepresented in every category of public sector employment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s also why the University of California at Berkeley’s Labor Center called public sector jobs the “single most important source of employment for African Americans.” Black workers are also less likely to have the option of working from home, according to EPI. Their experience and skills are more likely to be underutilized and, even when they are educated, they are more likely to be unemployed. In a country that underemploys and underpays black people, Tamara and many others are forced to hold on tightly to more stable “good government jobs.” She is just one of a disproportionate amount of black people who have been classified as “essential.”
These are just a few of the reasons African Americans are more willing to work for government entities that shelter them from the capriciousness of white America. In exchange, black workers expose themselves to the non-essential danger of apathy.
There are other non-hate related factors that contribute to coronavirus’ spread. But the lack of overt animus doesn’t negate the existence of white supremacy, for instance:
- Black people are more likely to be denied a mortgage or an auto loan, even when they have the same credit and employment history, which means…
- Black people are three times more likely than whites to ride public transportation, according to Pew research, so…
- African Americans are twice as likely to rent their homes and twice as likely to live in a multi-family unit, putting them in more contact with people who could possibly be infected, and...
- According to the National Institutes for Health, black people have greater rates of food insecurities, necessitating diets that cause coronavirus-exacerbating health problems, plus...
- Blacks have less access to clean water and air, especially in counties like St. John the Baptist Parish, La., which has America’s highest rate of cancer due to airborne toxins and, most importantly…
- A typical white person lives in a neighborhood that is 75 percent white and 8 percent black, while the typical black person’s neighborhood is 45 percent African American, the U.S. Partnership on Mobility from Poverty reports. So coronavirus-free white people live among coronavirus-free white people.
Without examining the underlying facts, it’s easy to dismiss coronavirus’ seemingly separate but unequal spread as a manifestation of unhealthy, poor black people. But the victims of white supremacy aren’t exclusively impoverished, uneducated negroes trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents.
They’re just black.
According to the Chicago Department of Public Health, the infection rate for COVID-19 among the city’s black population is 268 per 100,000 people, which is more than two-and-a-half times the rate of white infections (104.6 per 100,000). The Louisiana Dept. of Health reports that black people make up 70 percent of COVID-19 deaths despite being 32 percent of the population. Chicago’s black fatality rate (12.1) is six times the white death rate (2.1). In New York (both the city and state), COVID-19 fatality rates are disproportionately higher for every racial group except white and Asian citizens.
In St Louis, it’s even worse. According to the St. Louis American, as of April 8, black people made up 100 percent of the St. Louis citizens who died from COVID-19.
Each one of these agencies reports that the vast majority of COVID-19 fatalities are among people with underlying health issues, many of which affect black people in higher levels. So, one can easily infer that black people are sicker, so black people are more likely to die.
See. Wasn’t that easy?
But why are black people sicker?
Well, that brings us back to Joyce.
Joyce was able to catch her hypertension and diagnose her COVID-19 in the early stages because—like 49 percent of Americans, Joyce had employer-provided health insurance. Since black unemployment is double the white rate and black wealth is one-tenth of white Americans, it makes sense that black people are less likely to be able to pay out-of-pocket expenses. The Kaiser Foundation also notes that black people are less likely to be insured and more likely to live in a state that doesn’t participate in the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, mostly because small-government conservatives don’t think health insurance is a human right.
And, when Dr. Darrell J. Gaskin, deputy director of the Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, used data from the U.S. Census and American Medical Association to find neighborhoods across America that had a shortage of primary -care physicians, he discovered that 25.6 percent of African Americas lived in “healthcare deserts”—zip codes with few or no primary-care physicians—compared to 13.2 percent of whites.
For black people, healthcare is more expensive, harder to acquire and more difficult to keep. It’s impossible to attribute the disproportionate deaths and infections to already-occurring health risks while ignoring the economic, political and social realities that contribute to those health factors.
These underlying causes create death, which is why researchers projected Joyce and Tamara’s home state to have the highest COVID-19 death rate in America. And remember that disproportionately black and brown Louisiana parish with the highest cancer rate in the nation? St. John the Baptist Parish also has another national title.
Yes, white supremacy is a preexisting condition, too.
There is no mystery here.
While the COVID-19 death disparity may be shockingly stark when it appears in a headline, the story of the racist coronavirus killer would make the worst episode of House ever. We already know why it is happening. The coronavirus is targeting black communities for the same reason that America’s infection rate continues to rise while much of the world’s is declining:
We didn’t do enough to stop it from spreading.
Though it might be unpleasant to hear, America’s newest sickness could have been contained. Like white supremacy, we didn’t do enough to stop it and now black people are paying the price. But, you know what they say:
“When America catches a cold…”
The rest is not essential.